International

Bloodied and bruised, Egypt's Brotherhood searches for strategy

Leaders insist peaceful protest remains the only option, even as they concede it's unlikely to reverse the coup

A trampled poster of Egypt's ousted president Mohamed Morsi on the ground outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya Mosque in Cairo, Aug. 16, 2013.
Hassan Ammar/AP Photo

CAIRO, Egypt — Ahmed Ibrahim woke to a rough push on his shoulder. 

"Wake up, Ahmed. Wake up!"

Ibrahim, a 22-year-old member of the Muslim Brotherhood, could smell tear gas even inside his tent. It was the morning of Aug. 14. After a six-week sit-in demanding the reinstatement of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, the police had arrived to clear the protest camp in Cairo's Rabaa el-Adaweya Square.
 
Over the next 12 hours, trapped in the chaos of the sprawling, besieged square, Ibrahim (who is trying to avoid the security services and asked that his name here be changed) watched as bullets caught his friends — one in the knee, one in the thigh, one in the shoulder. As he bent to help a wounded man, a bullet cracked into his skull. Another man who went to help Ibrahim was shot in the side. He fell with a groan, and blood seeped from his mouth.
 
Ibrahim's father, a diabetic and also a Brotherhood member, limped about on a cane, spraying medication into protesters' eyes to relieve the effects of the gas. Ranging from one end of the protest to the other — searching for lost relatives, flattened on the asphalt behind a tent as other men were gunned down — Ibrahim survived.
 

By late evening, after nearly 400 people had been killed, father and son joined a long column of survivors marching out of the square through a military cordon. Soldiers flanked the column, and troops at the rear fired in the air to keep the protesters moving. Ibrahim looked behind him. The army was burning their tents.
 
The brutal dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins at Rabaa el-Adaweya Square and Cairo University and the campaign of arrests that followed have drawn comparisons with the harshest periods of repression in Egypt's 61-year history of military-rooted government. Though the Brotherhood publicly and repeatedly has pledged to confine itself to peaceful protest, some worry that the violent end of Morsi's presidency may have brought the 85-year-old movement's investment in democratic participation to a close and radicalized a generation of Islamists.
 
While it seems unlikely that the Brotherhood will take up arms, a return to electoral politics seems almost impossible, with the movement’s leadership decimated and its membership, scarred by unprecedented violence, decrying the return of the police state.
 
"I was upset about seeing dead people, seeing the bloodshed, seeing my family, my uncles — they are old men — my colleagues, I didn't know anything about them," Ibrahim recalled on Sunday, pausing to collect himself as the sun set over the courtyard of a mosque. At the time, he said, "I wished that I had a gun to kill them, like they are killing me and killing my brothers." 
 
In the week and a half since the protests were cleared, the government has conducted a sweeping campaign to hobble the Brotherhood and stifle any opposition to the popularly backed coup that ended Morsi's presidency on July 3. At least 1,000 people have died, and more than 2,000 have been arrested, according to the nonpartisan Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters.
 
Brotherhood leaders, including Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie and deputies Khairat el-Shater and Rashid Bayoumi, are in custody and facing trial, and all but a few others have gone into hiding, including prominent former parliamentarian Mohamed el-Beltagy, whose son, Ammar, though not a member of the Brotherhood, was reportedly arrested on Sunday. Morsi and a handful of his top advisers have been held nearly incommunicado in an undisclosed location since the coup. Nearly all those represented the movement in the media have been arrested or gone underground.
 
Among the dead at Rabaa el-Adaweya, Ibrahim counted a dozen close friends — Abdelrahman from Cairo University; the brothers Omar and Obaya; Ahmed, a roommate from a five-month Quran-study class; and Mohamed, a gregarious, overweight owner of a religious bookstore in the Manial neighborhood who was always quick to smile and ask about Ibrahim's family.

Other friends have disappeared or gone into hiding, and at least two have been arrested. Ibrahim, who was an active Brotherhood organizer at Cairo University, switches among mobile phones and, though he still sleeps at home, said he fears he may be arrested as well.

Communication among his peers in the movement has almost ceased since the sit-ins were dispersed, he said, and on Sunday, seeing two men in the street whom he had not contacted since Aug. 14, Ibrahim greeted both with a nod and a few words in passing but did not stop. That was the way of things now, he said.
 
At most, mobilization may come in the form of a terse, coded phone call, as it did on Sunday.
 
"We will pray 'asr' at Amr ibn el-Aas," a friend said, referring to the third of five daily prayers at a mosque in a neighborhood known as Old Cairo. Ibrahim knew he meant there would be a protest.

After the prayer, on cue and without fanfare, about 100 worshippers emerged, quietly passed around anti-military and pro-Brotherhood posters and began a march that ended at a large intersection nearby.
 
Organizing was easier for the Brotherhood under former president Hosni Mubarak, Ibrahim said. Now, it seemed, any space previously allowed by the state had been squeezed shut. The movement's vaunted ability to function effectively under repression seemed to have been exaggerated — or at least has yet to manifest itself. The Brotherhood would find new methods to communicate safely, Ibrahim promised, but it would take time.

Close observers of the Brotherhood said that the movement may have been unprepared for the ferocity of the military crackdown.

"They knew it would be bad, but they didn't know it would be this bad," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, who compared the military's strategy to "shock and awe." It was difficult now for the Brotherhood to talk on the phone, much less "gather five people in a room to discuss strategy," he said.

Hamid and other analysts said the government probably gained a better understanding of the Brotherhood's operations after the fall of Mubarak, when the movement formed the Freedom and Justice Party and exposed many of its lines of authority and communication. The crackdown has also touched Islamist allies of the Brotherhood.
 
Waleed Gamal Lotfy, a 33-year-old partner in a multinational architectural consulting firm and an adherent of the staunchly conservative Salafi movement, said one Salafi friend who had been imprisoned as a result of his beliefs was rearrested after the coup and another has gone into hiding.
 
"They will come with a vengeance," he said of the reinvigorated state security services.
 
Lotfy joined the Rabaa el-Adaweya protest and a demonstration the following Friday in Ramsis Square that also turned violent. A new anti-terrorism narrative, put forward by the government to frame the crackdown and adopted by most private media, began to make some of his friends feel like foreigners in their own country, he said. After the Ramsis Square protest, when angry crowds surrounded Morsi supporters in the Fateh Mosque, Lotfy said he panicked and trimmed his beard, which he had worn long in the traditional Salafi style.
 
"It's not the issue of getting the Muslim Brotherhood out of rule. It's a case of anti-revolution," he said. "They are getting all the regime back."
 
One former Freedom and Justice Party spokesperson, reached via text message, said its work meant that its members were under threat and he could not answer questions.
 
"Of course I am not afraid, but I have to take care for a while," the spokesperson wrote. "Please delete the conversation after you read it."
 
Still, a small number of prominent Brotherhood members have apparently been allowed to remain at large, including Amr Darrag, who led the Freedom and Justice Party's foreign-relations committee and briefly served in Morsi's cabinet.
 
Darrag was living at his home and free to move about in public, he told Al Jazeera in an interview, speculating that the military-installed government may have refrained from arresting him because he was considered moderate and uninvolved in organizing protests. He had also been closely involved in the failed mediation efforts by U.S. and European diplomats before the Rabaa el-Adaweya killings.

But his work, along with the country's politics in general, has ceased, for all practical purposes, Darrag said.
 
"I'm kind of isolated from any kind of leadership of the party. There's nobody to talk to. I don't know where they are," he said. "There's nothing to be done. There is no prospect of elections. There is no campaigning. Actually, the party doesn't have to function."
 
Darrag, echoing outside analysts, said the crackdown and sweeping arrests resembled the 1950s and '60s, during the rule of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, when thousands of Brotherhood members were thrown in jail and many of the movement's most influential thinkers, like Sayyid Qutb, were radicalized by the experience.
 
But the bloody clearing of Rabaa el-Adaweya — which was foreshadowed by two mass killings in the preceding weeks — was unprecedented, he said. And this time, he added, security forces had crossed "red lines" by arresting women as well as the movement's supreme leader. Every day brought word of several dozen new arrests, and the military, whom he called the "real rulers," showed no interest in negotiating, he said.
 
It remains unclear whether the Brotherhood can exercise control over its enormous membership after multiple tiers of leadership have been devastated by the crackdown. The movement's structure, comprising several hundred thousand people, is a pyramid, and members say local branches and their subunits, called families, allow for a degree of flexible decision-making. But some analysts say that the Brotherhood will flounder without the directives from leaders to which it is accustomed and that the military is confident that if it eliminates the top ranks, the movement will cease to be a politically meaningful force.
 
"The military's plan is to decapitate the Muslim Brotherhood," said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has researched the movement.
 
That would leave the vast majority of its members at large, having witnessed "tremendous trauma," he said, "but they can't organize to win elections and achieve control over the state either. And this is the military's key aim: destroying the Brotherhood's ability to organize effectively and regain power in the near future, because this would mean death for the generals."
 
Islam Abdel Rahman, a Freedom and Justice Party foreign-affairs analyst who left Cairo during the crackdown, said that the security forces' arrest campaign was broad, targeting "anybody they think can play a role in his community" but that local groups could come up with their own plans in line with the movement's "broad vision."
 
That vision, at least publicly, has been a commitment to peaceful protests, which have continued, albeit in greatly reduced numbers, since the sit-ins were cleared. Meanwhile, mobs fired up by sectarian rhetoric — much of it promoted or tolerated by the Brotherhood -- have attacked hundreds of Christian business and places of worship throughout the country, ostensibly in retribution for churches' public support of Morsi's ouster. 
 
Even if the Brotherhood refrains from violence, it remains unclear how protests — or anything else — can resolve the conflict.
 
Abdel Rahman claims that a growing number of "ordinary people" are joining the Brotherhood's side against the military, but the movement sees few prospects for negotiations or of its being allowed to participate fairly in politics. 
 
Ibrahim said he did not believe that Badie or his deputies would be released from prison anytime soon. He repeated a rumor circulating in the Brotherhood that Badie's jaw had been broken by his interrogators and said he believed the government intended to kill Morsi in custody.
 
Yet he insisted that peaceful protest was the only solution and that the Brotherhood had no hope of winning an armed confrontation with the state. He mentioned a widely shared YouTube video of an unarmed protester, purportedly filmed in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, who was shot down while raising his hands in front of a tank. The man, he said, had served as a message that peacefulness was a "strong weapon" against the military.
 
Before the coup, Ibrahim said, he had viewed the Brotherhood's decision to accelerate its political ambitions — by seeking a majority in parliament and running for president — as a mistake. But the military overthrow, he said, convinced him that the movement had been close enough to success to frighten the generals and should continue on the path. Other Brotherhood members echoed his sentiments and defended what many view as Morsi's most damaging mistakes, such as a power-grabbing November decree that placed him above judicial review and set the stage for months of anti-Brotherhood protests leading up to the coup. His overthrow, backed by most of the country's liberal and opposition parties, has convinced the Brotherhood of the justness of its cause.
 
"I'm afraid. Of course I'm personally afraid, I have tension, but that's natural. When you ride a microbus in Cairo, now you've got to be scared and worried," he said, laughing. "I have a very big hope in God and very big expectations."

Whether Ibrahim’s expectations are met depends in large part on factors outside his and the Brotherhood's control, such as whether the military relents, seeing the Brotherhood's threat neutralized, and whether non-Islamist political forces begin to oppose the generals, the Brookings Doha Center's Hamid said.

Such a process may take a year — or several. In the meantime, he said, Brotherhood politicians could participate in elections through proxy parties or simply boycott. The deep ranks of its membership could return, as some leaders were urging before Mubarak's fall, to their traditional realm of proselytizing and social work. For many, that is exactly where they would like to be.

What seems assured, though, is that the forcible end to the Brotherhood's biggest political victory to date has not taught the movement to reform what opponents criticize as its authoritarian and exclusionary tactics but rather to close ranks and continue the fight.

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